Blood Meridian

30 Oct 2021 02:15 - 17 Jun 2023 08:29
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    • Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy has to be the one of the most disturbingly violent work of art I've ever encountered. It makes Sam Peckinpah look like My Little Pony. I have a pretty high tolerance for depictions of violence, or so I thought, but this one was challenging.
    • This is not the cartoonish violence of, say, a Sergio Leone western, Not that I don't appreciate cartoonish violence, but by definition it doesn't really register. It seems too much like fun, like a game, or a fantasy where you can project yourself onto the protagonist and imagine yourself as a cool and competent cowboy, a heroic killer. The violence in Blood Meridian is not like that, it's brutal and terrible and pervasive. Nobody here is a hero, although a few faint sparks of humanity flicker in the darkness occasionally.
    • The book's action takes place around the Texas / Mexico border in the 1850s, and is loosely based on real events (making it that much more disturbing). The protagonist (more or less) is nameless but occasionally referred to as The Kid, a runaway from Tenessee who finds his way into a group of mercenaries headed by John Glanton (a historical figure) and animated by the monstrous and demonic figure of Judge Holden, who like Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men is an incarnation of not just death, but of pitiless and absolute nihilism.
    • Holden is huge, hairless, and vicious. He's the best-educated man on the frontier, a pedophile and child murderer, conversant in many languages, a fine dancer and musician, a crack shot, and a naturalist who makes records of his observations. Amazingly enough Holden too is taken from history; he's described in one of McCarthy's sources, Samuel Chamberlain’s My Confession: The Recollections of a Rogue.
    • The violence is framed by the physical setting and the astonishing language McCarthy finds to describe a series of barren landscapes. One example (there are dozens of passages like this)
      • They rode all day upon a pale gastine sparsely grown with saltbush and panicgrass. In the evening they entrained upon a hollow ground that rang so roundly under the horses' hooves that they stepped and sidled and rolled their eyes like circus animals and that night as they lay in that ground each heard, all heard, the dull boom of rock falling somewhere far below them in the awful darkness inside the world.
    • This is one of those portentiously metaphysical novels (or maybe pretentious, if that's not to your taste). It makes clear references to other literary works that seem to take on as their subject the basic metaphysical structure of the world, including Moby Dick and Paradise Lost. The judge is a verbose and articulate spokesman for a pitiless nihilism:
    • The judge smiled. Men are born for games. Nothing else. Every child knows that play is nobler than work. He knows too that the worth or merit of a game is not inherent in the game itself but rather in the value of that which is put at hazard. Games of chance require a wager to have meaning at all. Games of sport involve the skill and strength of the opponents and the humiliation of defeat and the pride of victory are in themselves sufficient stake because they inhere in the worth of the principals and define them. But trial of chance or trial of worth all games aspire to the condition of war for here that which is wagered swallows up game, player, all. (p 260).
    • “The truth about the world," he says, "is that anything is possible. Had you not seen it all from birth and thereby bled it of its strangeness it would appear to you for what it is, a hat trick in a medicine show, a fevered dream, a trance bepopulate with chimeras having neither analogue nor precedent, an itinerant carnival, a migratory tentshow whose ultimate destination after many a pitch in many a mudded field is unspeakable and calamitous beyond reckoning”
    • Moral law is an invention of mankind for the disenfranchisement of the powerful in favor of the weak. Historical law subverts it at every turn.
    • Suppose two men at cards with nothing to wager save their lives. Who has not heard such a tale? A turn of the card. The whole universe for such a player has labored clanking to this moment which will tell if he is to die at that man's hand or that man at his. What more certain validation of a man's worth could there be? This enhancement of the game to its ultimate state admits no argument concerning the notion of fate. The selection of one man over another is a preference absolute and irrevocable and it is a dull man indeed who could reckon so profound a decision without agency or significance either one. In such games as have for their stake the annihilation of the defeated the decisions are quite clear. This man holding this particular arrangement of cards in his hand is thereby removed from existence. This is the nature of war, whose stake is at once the game and the authority and the justification. Seen so, war is the truest form of divination. It is the testing of one's will and the will of another within that larger will which because it binds them is therefore forced to select. War is the ultimate game because war is at last a forcing of the unity of existence. War is god.
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